Michael Zavros, The Phoenix (2015). Collection Art Gallery of South Australia. James & Diana Ramsay Fund supported by Philip Bacon through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2016. On display, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Back in the 5th century BC, two of ancient Greece’s best artists decided to stage the ultimate painting duel to decide who was the greater artist. As Pliny the Elder tells it in his Naturalis Historia, it was a decisive contest, with the two men trying to outwit each other with a virtuoso display of realistic painting.
The first to reveal his work was Zeuxis. When he unveiled his painting, it was a bowl of grapes that looked so real, birds swooped down to try to eat them. With such a skilful work, Zeuxis was pretty sure he had won, and he went to draw back the curtain that was concealing the work of his competitor, Parrhasius. But when Zeuxis tried to draw back the curtain, he realised the curtain itself was the painting and he had been fooled. He is quoted as saying: “I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis.” Parrhasius was declared the greater painter.
This legendary competition, with its emphasis on trompe l’oeil, or trick of the eye, has had repercussions throughout art history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, for instance, stories such as this were used to encourage the study of ancient Greek artists and how to better achieve effective illusionism.
The contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius is also reinterpreted in the work of contemporary Queensland-based artist Michael Zavros, who for more than 20 years has created meticulous photorealistic paintings.
One of his latest paintings, The Phoenix, has just been acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia. This work was created especially for last year’s Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Magic Object but it is back on display.
The gallery’s curator of contemporary art, Leigh Robb, says viewers assume The Phoenix is a photograph until they get up close. She says it
Oil on canvas; 220cm x 200cm